Last year I was amazed by a couple of stories that had hit the media about kids who had made amazing scientific discoveries. Jack Andraka, who was 15 at the time, had discovered an inexpensive and accurate test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers. Check out his seven minute video from the TED Talent Search. Another innovation teen Catherine Wong, who was 17 at the time, had created a prototype of a portable electrocardiogram (EKG) that can connect to a cell phone via Bluetooth and transmit the results over a cellular network. As both told their stories it was remarkable how they were undaunted by the trial and error process. They were not deterred by failure or setbacks and they simply kept trying. But where do kids learn not to fear failure and develop the courage to pick themselves up and keep moving forward?
A friend and former colleague who knows of my interest and passion for better understanding failure had forwarded a link to me a few months back for www.admittingfailure.com. The site is hosted by Ashley Good from the group Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWBC). Ashley launched the site in January 2011 as part of a growing movement in bringing transparency to failures in the international development sphere. The people working in the non-profit sector are not much different to those working in for-profit businesses when it comes to failure. A statement from the site notes that “The development community is failing…to learn from failure. Instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away out of fear and embarrassment.”
How do we learn how to fail? I know this sounds like a ridiculous question, we don’t need to “know” how to fail because it just happens. We start with a plan or idea and it could be any plan really: to get an A on a paper, to get into a certain school, to ask someone out on a date, or to get that next promotion. We then set in motion actions that will get us closer to our plan: studying the class material, preparing an application, finding out a phone number (I have to admit my dating experience might be a “dated”), or delivering a key project for your boss. Eventually you will either succeed or fail in your plan: maybe you ace the test, you get your acceptance letter, she agrees to a first date, or you get that promotion? But maybe you don’t? And if not, then what happens next? What is your fallback plan, your contingency, or your pivot? How do you pick yourself up and move on?
Today Peter Sims wrote about my favorite topic Failure in an article for the HBR Blog titled “The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure.” Sims comments on how parents, teachers, and bosses all push us to prevent errors and mitigate risks. He points out how entrepreneurs and designers have a different frame of mind toward failure seeing “mistakes” as part of the trial-and-error processes of driving innovation. Sims calls for each of us to revolt against this thinking and to no longer be “shackled by these norms.”
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